Fact and fantasy in the newsroom

Image of Vanessa Friedman

In one of those cosmic coincidences of timing, just as the Leveson inquiry in the UK paints journalists in the worst possible light, HBO is on Sunday launching The Newsroom, a new series from Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) that will paint journalists – well, TV journalists – in a relatively promising light: trying, most of the time, to be good. Even though I’m of the print species, I, for one, am glad.

Not because of any fear of journalists becoming demonised à la bankers but because I am as susceptible to the romance of certain vocations – news, politics, anything in which protagonists get to make high-flying speeches about man striving to be his best self (see The Newsroom’s anchor/star Jeff Daniels in episode one) – as anyone born in the US during the Watergate era. Which is to say, anyone who grew up with figures such as Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards in their mind’s eye: a veritable study in how to wear your conscience, and shirtsleeves, with style.

Admittedly, with age came the unveiling of Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee in their human, fallible and – Bradlee aside – slightly frumpy reality, but it didn’t matter. By the time I knew the people, the portraits had become etched in my ideals.

There was hustle! There was bustle! There was shouting over the typewriters! There was rumpled hair and ties pulled askew! Even though I know this is not entirely how things are, I welcome television that allows me to indulge my fantasy, and my expectation is that Sorkin’s show will fit the bill.

The first day I walked into the FT newsroom, I could not believe how quiet things were, or how jeans-and-button-downed. Yet, just as if you transcribe exactly a conversation between two people and then read back what they say, which is often full of “ums” and “ers” and “likes”, and incomplete sentences, grammatical errors and plain old nonsense, it seems unbelievable (no one talks like that!) if you dress characters on screen the way they dress in real life – and it seems terribly boring.

There’s a fine line, of course – no one speaks like a David Mamet character, either, and, having worked at both Vogue and Elle, I can tell you that no one at a fashion magazine dresses like a character from The Devil Wears Prada (thigh-high Chanel boots on an assistant “borrowed” from the fashion closet is pretty close to ridiculous) – but you need a kind of heightened reality, an optimised truth, to make it seem, well, real. In creating character, you have to feed, just a little, the popular fantasy in order to lull people into buying into the world you are creating.

HBO happens to be featuring another on-screen reporter at the moment: Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (the one who divorced him to go back to war) in Hemingway & Gellhorn, in which she is seen in everything from great late 1930s white silk blouses to perfectly tailored trousers and nifty pea coats – “blonde hair flying glamorously” about, as one reviewer noted. Though it may be period-valid, it’s not really war reporter-valid, but it looks the way anyone would wish a war reporter who told Ernest Hemingway to get lost should look. So it works.

And so it goes, almost across history, with journalists. From films such as His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell as a super-fast talking female reporter in a super-chic checked and belted coat, and Cary Grant as her editor in double-breasted Prince of Wales check, to Sally Field as an unethical reporter in low-necked button-down in Absence of Malice, and David Strathairn as Edward R Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, on-screen reporters always have the benefit of a better costume department than the real thing.

They are both more polished and more rumpled than in reality: the ferreting-out-of-inconvenient-facts look, which is almost always signified by the absence of tie and rolling up of sleeves, as if freedom of the press has somehow been conflated with, and symbolised by, freedom from the tie.

On the other hand, when they need to deliver news, the look then becomes almost a cliché of menswear authority. See, for example, a scene in The Newsroom when Daniels’ character is about to go on-air, having changed from his off-screen working uniform of no tie, jeans, button-down and V-neck sweater into a pinstripe suit, and his producer, played by Emily Mortimer, requests a wardrobe supervisor and then reels off a list of her rules for what to wear: charcoal grey, navy blue and black; Zegna, Armani and Hugo Boss.

“Isn’t he going to look like an elite Caucasian prick?” says an associate.

“Let’s make that sexy again,” she says.

This is, it turns out, how we like our journalists: at the alpha and omega ends of the sartorial spectrum, either down and dirty and looking like they have been out wrestling with the truth, even if it’s only their phone or the computer; or buttoned-up and polished, like a terrific turn of phrase. It’s the dream.

You don’t have to take my word for it – look to the screen. But, whatever you do, do not think of checking out a real newsroom for proof.


More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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